We’ve all heard the adage “Show, don’t tell,” so much that many writers believe it means to show is good, while to tell is bad. That’s not true.
There is a time and place for both approaches in both fiction and nonfiction. Let’s revise the adage to something more practical and hopefully more meaningful for your writing. When you are writing in scene: show, don’t tell. When you are writing narrative exposition: tell in the best way appropriate to advance the story.
Writing in scene is showing action on the page.
When you are advancing your plot, character development, or theme through action, that is characters doing things on the page, you are writing in scene. Action includes dialogue and everything else your characters might do that is dramatically engaging to advance your story.
- Look at the picture above and write a scene in which they interact with the subject of their photos. Writing in scene is about action, reaction, and interaction.
When you are writing in scene, you should be all about the showing. Embody your POV character. Get the reader to feel what he feels, see what he sees, know what he knows.
Writing narrative exposition is telling the reader a variety of useful things.
- Mood: Let your prose shine. Describe your setting or a character or an event in a way that establishes the mood. Cheerful. Bleak. Gloomy. Festive. Spare. Mean. Somber. Etc.
- Check out the picture above. Turn it into words to practice using narrative exposition to both describe a setting and create mood.
- Summary of Passing Time: When the story takes a leap forward in time, when your character has to get across the country, when some undramatic change occurs, use a paragraph or several of summary to let the reader know time has passed without any very interesting events related to the story occurring. Even in summary, you want to be artful. There is a wonderful example of this in the film Notting Hill. Hugh Grant’s character walks through a marketplace as the seasons change to show the passage of a year in which he’s alone (and nothing related to the story happens in his life). You can find the clip on YouTube; search “Notting Hill Ain’t No Sunshine.”
- Backstory: If you aren’t going into flashback, which is taking the reader back in time to see the past in scene, you can provide backstory through some quick narrative exposition without ever leaving the present scene.
If you tried to write everything between the covers of your book in scene, you’d need 1000 pages to tell a story. Write passages with dramatic impact on the character and reader in scene. Use narrative exposition for everything else.
Keep in mind, a dramatic impact can be an internal movement with emotional resonance, or it can be an external movement with explosive action. Character development mostly hinges on the former, and plot development mostly hinges on the latter.
A quick example of two in scene passages from a literary classic in which nothing actually explodes, Anne of Green Gables. Anne crying herself to sleep her first night in Green Gables is a dramatic forward movement of the story. It is focused on the character’s internal, emotional state. The reader worries for the girl without a home, whose future is still uncertain. Anne Shirley breaking a slate over Gilbert Blythe’s head is an external dramatic moment that advances the plot. Anne acts out and gets into trouble; there’s a clear action-reaction. This moment also establishes her relationship with Gilbert that will continue throughout the series.
I hope you now have a better understanding of when to write in scene and when to use narrative exposition. Both are wonderful tools and no story can exist without both of them.
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